Game Research Feed

The Constraint Histories of Digital Games

consoles How could we best recount the history of digital game design? Although genres seem to provide a framework for discussing the progression of various designs, are the categories being applied reflective of actual historical forces, or merely convenient collections of otherwise spuriously connected games?

A recurring but often unnoticed problem in game studies is the inability to discuss the historical lineage of a title, or only being able to do so by assuming the validity of often dubious genre categories. For the most part, the obsession with research that “smells like science” has reduced historical investigations to a lesser status. This is unfortunate: a culturally-situated critical discourse about games could enrich game studies immeasurably.

There are numerous complications. The direct influences on any game designer are often unknown, plus many other team members on most projects have input towards design considerations, making it impossible to unravel a chain of antecedents. Similarly, any commercially successful title is affected by and has effects on the expectations and assumptions of players (including those players who make future games) that affect which titles succeed, and this applies differently in each region of the world. The ZX Spectrum, for instance, directly influenced British games development (including the Grand Theft Auto franchise) but was not a part of the local game histories in the US or Japan.

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.

An alternative approach can begin by considering the historical constraints that acted on any given title, grouping games by common constraints into related clusters. The considerations that follow from hardware are along similar lines to what Montford and Bogost discuss in Racing the Beam, but this is not the only (nor even the most important) constraint to be identified. For many games, market, cultural or contextual factors had a greater effect on the design. We can call the former hard and the latter soft constraints on the design.

For example, 8 bit arcade games from 1980-1984 share hard constraints in terms of computing power, display technology and control devices, as well as the soft constraints of an arcade coin-op: for commercial reasons, games were required to be of short average duration to drive many coin drops per hour. Galaxians and Pac-man belong in the same cluster on this approach, despite the obvious differences in genre. Gauntlet, in 1985, marks a change in conditions, away from one coin, one play and into a many coined ‘pump and play’ cluster, fostering multiple coin drops in each game (what could be called the original microtransaction model). Gradius/Nemesis straddles the two clusters, originally one-coin but later modified with a continue to encourage multiple coin drops per game. The change in soft constraints here is more significant than the change in hard constraints, and this is frequently the case.

Throughout the nineties, the most significant shift in hard constraints resulted from the increasing focus on polygonal 3D representations. Here, the hardware development was lead by a demand for 3D graphics so there is a sense in which the hard constraints were driven by soft constraints. The 2000s were marked by a radical increase in touchscreens, first with the DS (about to become the best selling console of all time) and then with the iPhone, iPad and all the copycats since. Once again, soft constraints led hardware: a correctly perceived need to simplify the intensely complex controllers that resulted from the constraint history of the preceding decade produced the DS.

Other hard constraints have grown up more organically. Despite all the efforts at creating online entertainments in the early 2000s, the technology was not up to speed until the middle of the decade. The easing up of constraints on bandwidth moved clusters of games that had grown up in LAN play, such as the multiplayer FPS format codified in Quake, into the open internet. This brought significant new soft constraints into play, including the ongoing shift to games-as-services that has emerged from the mass market demand for easy-yet-fun games coupled with the hard constraints of browser-based, persistent content.

The rise of browser-based games also highlights the significant transformation in hard constraints in recent years: the specifics of physical hardware now matter less than ever before, since content is defined for software platforms (such as Flash) rather than specific hardware. Although some hardware-exclusive games are still made, the number of these is vanishingly small next to multi-platform or platform agnostic titles. Software is the new hardware, or at least the origin of the new hard constraints affecting game design.

This historical approach to game design offers a broader understanding of how various constraints, both technical (hard) and circumstantial (soft) have shaped the development of the contemporary digital games industry. Grouping games into clusters based on common constraints provides an alternative way to present the history of games without resorting to ad hoc genre categories. I have not found any better approach for game design history, and I am convinced that without something of this kind, game studies is lacking a vital piece of the story of games.

Player Typology in Theory and Practice

Here’s a link to the paper I presented at DiGRA this year entitled Player Typology in Theory and Practice, and the abstract:

Player satisfaction modeling depends in part upon quantitative or qualitative typologies of playing preferences,  although such approaches require scrutiny. Examination of psychometric typologies reveal that type theories have—except in rare cases—proven inadequate and have made way for alternative trait theories. This suggests any future player typology that will be sufficiently robust will need foundations in the form of a trait theory of playing preferences. This paper tracks the development of a sequence of player typologies developing from psychometric  type theory roots towards an independently validated trait theory of play, albeit one yet to be fully developed. Statistical analysis of the results of  one survey in this lineage is presented, along with a discussion of theoretical and practical ways in which the surveys and their implied typological instruments have evolved.

Thanks to everyone who attended my presentation and the boardgames panel! It was a great shame to only be able to attend one day of the conference.

Highlights of Videogame Cultures 3

Spring Where does the games as art debate go now? How much do stereotypes of "the gamer" dominate and distort perspectives of games in culture? Can counterplay and co-creation in games change the relationship between the makers and players of games? Issues such as these were the focus of lively debate in-and-out of the conference halls at Videogame Cultures 3 in Oxford University’s Mansfield College.

The contemporary collision of traditional and the futuristic was underlined at this event by the architecture: the late Victorian “Queen Anne” style quadrangle building sits uncomfortably in the shadow of a modern steel-and-glass monstrosity that lurks in the background as if superimposed for an episode of Doctor Who. The oak wooden door to the conference eerily opens on its own as you approach.

I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I can honestly say that this was far more than a typical academic conference – the camaraderie of an industry event like GDC coupled with the intimacy of a small conference (fewer than forty people in attendance) led to great opportunities for lively discussions that commenced within the programme to leak outwards into the pubs of Oxford during the night, and on in many cases into the early hours of the morning.

Hosted by, an implausibly wild organisation that consists of hubs with titles like “Transformations” and “Evil”, and individual programmes on everything from Eroticism to Whiteness, I was slightly disappointed that for the most part it felt largely like a conventional game studies crowd – where were the psychologists, the economists, the law theorists? But this complaint is rather unjust since, as was pointed out to me, the event did feature presentations that offered radically diverse approaches to videogames, from literary and media theorists and virtual world researchers on one end of the scale through to philosophers and bloggers at the other, this was a long way from presenting a unified approach to the topics at hand, and all the better because of it. Besides, although interest in game studies is high at the moment and many universities now offer a degree in video game design or something equivalent, most discussion of game studies is still of a very low standard. That simply wasn't the case at this event.

My own presentation, a highly condensed version of Imaginary Games, was in the opening panel. This turned out to be one of my favourite sets of papers just because they fitted together so perfectly – Belgian philosopher and artist Christophe Bruchansky went first, presenting a semiotic approach to games that Corvus Elrod would have been proud of, then after my piece, Adam Ruch pushed the idea of a tyranny of 'game-fun’ while looking strangely like Corvus Elrod without the handlebar moustache. All three of us drew from each other’s papers on the fly, and the discussions afterwards became incredibly animated – especially on the matter of the artistic status and lack of esteem afforded the medium of games – setting a level of energy that was sustained for the most part throughout the conference.

Felan Parker’s later piece on artgames (referencing Passage, The Graveyard and The Marriage amongst others) put this issue of games as art into further context by considering the historical circumstances by which cultural products are legitimised as worthy of esteem, while Mathias Fuchs considered the use of ‘ludic interfaces’ in art installations and games, while also discussing how exciting new interfaces like the mouse quickly become “domesticated”. Julienne Greer delivered one of my favourite presentations of the conference, discussing digital companions in games such as Shadow of the Colossus (argo) and Portal (GLaDOS) from the perspective of an actress and a performer – as well as being the most consistently animated source of weird and wonderful new perspectives on just about everyone’s work.

Still in the context of the interface between games and art, conference chair Daniel Riha asked questions about whether the capacity for a simulation to be subverted in ways people find shocking is a viable argument for not exploring historical situations via games, while Kris Lee presented an early version of his artistically-motivated game that explores the experience of limerence – the romantic obsession with an individual that comes to dominate a person’s life as they fantasise about a fulfilment that may never happen. (This topic was to prove interesting in late night discussions after one too many glasses of The Singleton). Dimitrios Pavlounis’ discussion of co-creation also dealt with aesthetic issues, looking at the way a game like LittleBigPlanet conceals the labour of level design by pretending its play, while other games such as Minecraft seamlessly blend the two activities, and although not intended as an aesthetic exploration I found Rowan Tulloch’s analysis of health as a representation perfectly adapted to negative enforcement learning to be highly stimulating.

The question of subversion and transgression came up on many fronts. On one hand, it ranged from Cameron Vaziri’s account of the micro-resistance of players who subvert the political order internal to games to Dale Leorke’s exploration of counterplay and countergaming in the context of location based gaming. On the other, Jen Jenson and Nick Taylor denied sex-swapping in avatars can be construed as trangressive (emphasising their point by switching name badges for the conference), while Kelly Bergstrom and Steph Fisher explored the way gamers distance themselves from the stereotype of “that guy” – the sweaty basement addict with a lack of that mythical substance, self-control. Marian Carr arguably went further, suggesting that gender identity in hobbies were being distorted by the use of the term ‘gamer’, and contributing to the failure for the industry to attract female talent.

My favourite of the questions about transgression came from Nick Webber, whose spirited defence of the right for players to engage in griefing denied last-day fatigue to generate a flurry of fascinating questions and consequent discussions. Although not a griefer himself, Nick tore across the usual assumptions of how to deal with the topic, and suggested that policing against griefers did not reflect a social consensus, but rather a pandering to a vocal minority. This talk was only topped in the conference in terms of laying the smackdown by veteran firebrand Suzanne de Castell who bitch-slapped the entire field of virtual world research for the shoddiness of their methods in a polemic that was, frankly, richly deserved, but that will probably fall on rather deaf ears.

The ‘cultures’ part of the conference title was amply demonstrated in Cat Goodfellow’s descriptions of the connection between post-Soviet identity politics and Russian games, Marcelo Simão de Vasconcellos discussion of serious games for health communication in Brazil, and Philip Lin’s analysis of “militainment” from both a Western and Eastern cultural standpoint, while Jumanne Donahue proposed possible methods for capturing cultural value data in games in a voice like being bathed in honey. The theme also emerged in go-to-guy Ewan Kirkland’s discussion of the tacit prejudice of “orientalism” in LittleBigPlanet, although Ewan himself made perhaps a greater impact as the driving force behind the regular evening think-and-drink sessions, that grew later and later with each passing night.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the event worked in a slightly subtle fashion - Jan Argasiński’s case for game studies as software studies, for instance, felt like it was on its home turf despite operating against the conventional paradigm for game studies. Also, a nice touch was a set of workshops for attendees lacking in experience with games run by soon-to-be husband and wife team Monica Evans and Tim Christopher, while their colleague Jacob Naasz (inescapably looking like a younger, smarter Jack Black) discussed options for rapid prototyping that had me thinking about actually making a short videogame for the first time in years. 

Finally, this blog post would be incomplete without a shout out to Ben Abraham, who explored the capacity for bloggers to be considered domain experts. (During his session, I got to be Levi Bryant, which was a blast!) This talk lead to a challenge from me about the claim that “the Wikipedia is widely considered an expert” that produced fascinating perspectives from the whole panel on the topic of the infamous web resource, combining equal parts scepticism and respect for the epistemological credentials of the site. I spent my last night in the pub having a great discussion with Ben on everything from philosophy to Australian politics, before inviting the survivors up to my penthouse for one final, spirited, late-night discussion. The hangovers at breakfast the following morning were a badge of honour as we scattered to the four winds on a beautiful Monday morning…

It was the third of my five conferences this Summer, but the remaining two would have to be quite incredible to come even close to topping the fascinatingly eclectic collision of ideas at this event.

The opening image is Spring, by Vitor, taken from here on his Fractal Forest website with implicit permission. The artists retains all rights to this image.

Much Needed Refreshment (and Forthcoming Papers)

Right, I really needed that break from blogging… Frankly, I was feeling incredibly weighed down by the weight of academic papers that I had to write, and needed to focus on them. Here’s a list of all the papers, book chapters and presentations I’ve written or worked upon in the last month and a half:

  • “Player Typology in Theory and Practice” (with Rebecca Lowenhaupt and Lennart Nacke)
  • “BrainHex: Preliminary Results from a Neurobiological Gamer Typology Survey” (with Lennart Nacke and Regan Mandryk)
  • “Neurobiological Foundations for Player Satisfaction Modeling” (with Lennart Nacke) in Game Telemetry and Metrics (eds. Mady Seif El-Nasr and Anders Drachen)
  • “Chaotic Good in the Balance” in Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (eds. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox)
  • “Dungeons & Dragons & Dice &… Prop Theory for Role-Play”
    in Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy (eds. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox)
  • “Prop Theory for Game Aesthetics”
  • “Orthodox Science Fiction and Fictional Worlds”
  • “Fictional Worlds in Films and Games”

That’s a lot of papers for someone who doesn’t work as an academic! Anyway, I now have this workload under better control, so with luck I should be able to get back into the blogging.

Blogging resumes again next week - hope to see you in the comments!

Call for Participants in a Serious Game Study

I’m posting this call for participants on behalf of the Save Energy project, which ihobo has been working on.

We're looking for participants to a study on serious gaming. The experiment is a part of EU funded SAVE ENERGY project. This project aims to help Europe to get greener by saving energy in public buildings. The experiment is a study of energy habits and awareness.

We ask for your cooperation for 3 months, during which time you'll be filling out questionnaires once a month (taking no more than 1 hour), receiving some information messages once a week, and invited to participate in some online activities. Each participant will be given a gift voucher worth €40 as a compensation for their efforts.

If you're aged 18 or older, with free time during the summer and access to a computer and you want to participate, contact us and we will send you further instructions. The experiments will start in the third week of May and continue until August.

Contact: Olli Haino (click for email)

What is Endured Always Enhances Enjoyment

It is one of the strangest aspects of play that whatever can be endured will ultimately serve to enhance the enjoyment of the player who perseveres. Tolerating repetition adds satisfaction to the completing task. Tolerating difficulty in challenges turns mere success into glowing victory. Tolerating frustratingly obscure puzzles leads to smug triumph when they are eventually cracked.

Of course, each of these ordeals to be endured will also exclude certain players from reaching their eventual rewards. Not everyone is willing to endure tedium, difficulty or obscurity. But it is striking to note that the same things which cause certain players to give up a game are the very things which make it worth playing for others. This is more than just ‘different strokes for different folks’ – it seems as if whatever a player will endure ultimately ends up enhancing the reward they experience.

BrainHex Succeeds Beyond Expectations

BrainHexInternational Hobo is pleased to announce the phenomenal success of their BrainHex player satisfaction model, which launched in August 2009 and received more responses in its first week than in the entire lifespan of its predecessor, DGD2. To date, the test has been taken by over 60,000 respondents, and the data is currently being analysed by the University of Saskatchewan. Multiple academic papers will be published later this year announcing the key findings of this research into how and why people play games.

Although data analysis has already begun, International Hobo will leave the BrainHex site up and running indefinitely, so that gamers can continue to take the test for their own enlightenment and amusement. It is possible that responses being collected now will still be used in future analyses.

We wish to thank everyone involved in the BrainHex project, especially Neil Bundy for his work on the test's backend code, Corvus Elrod for his work on the logos, Lennart Nacke and Regan Mandryk for their work on the statistical analysis, the countless people who helped publicise the test, and lastly the tens of thousands of players who provided the data. Thank you all!

What You Like and Dislike in Games

question_mark.ihobo What words do we use to discuss what we like and dislike about games? The words people use in specific contexts reveals something about their relationship with that aspect of life, and this is true of games as much as anything else.

What words would you use to describe what you like or dislike in the context of:

  • Game pacing, that is, the rate at which content is added to a game  e.g. “well-paced”, “slow” or a “grind”.
  • Virtual worlds, that is, the fictional worlds of games e.g. “beautiful”, “dark”, “dull” or “immersive”.
  • Mechanics, that is, the rules and systems of games e.g. “unbalanced”, “perfectly balanced” or “quirky”
  • Compulsiveness, that is, the extent to which a game captures and holds attention in the short or long term e.g. “addictive”, “compelling” or “replayable”.
  • Any other aspect of games I’ve not mentioned

Feel free to simply describe games you are currently playing or your favourite games in whatever words you choose – I’m interested in the words we already use to describe our play experiences, any anything in this respect could be useful.

Thanks for your assistance!

BrainHex: The Facebook Invasion

It seems that BrainHex was blogged at Geeks are Sexy, and has since started appearing in the Borg collective that is Facebook... as a result, we're experiencing a sudden rush of new data at the rate of about 3,000 responses a day. At this rate, we will have doubled our number of data points in just over a week! I'm hoping the infrastructure will hold up - we only really designed it to handle about 5,000 responses in total, so it's really being put to the test right now!

We're finally getting close to the data analysis stage, and I hope to have some results to share sometime in early 2011.